A church is a strange miracle of an institution.
As a daughter of a deacon-turned-missionary/pastor, I grew up in a church. According to my mother, my brother and I spent our first two years audaciously crawling up to the pastor’s podium while he was preaching. The pastor let us crawl around his feet until we started getting too distracting; then he had to call my mother to drag us away.
I have fond memories of trailing after my favorite Sunday School teachers as a toddler, playing hopscotch with church friends after service, getting shushed by adults for being too noisy during church conferences. I must have spent at least half of my entire childhood in church.
Because I grew up in a church, I’ve witnessed a lot of drama and controversies behind the scenes. You think high school and office politics is bad? Wait till you join a church and become an active participant.
You’ll see people arguing over the most petty things. You’ll feel that tight tension that stretch between opposing theologies, politics, personalities and values. You’ll one day suddenly discover a family missing, and later through eavesdropping you’ll discover that they left over financial clashes, twisted envy or kids getting bullied. You might even experience a church splitting off into groups under bitter emotions—I’ve unfortunately experienced this too many times. Even if nothing so dramatic is staged, just keep your senses open, and you’ll notice strained relationships between certain individuals, sprouted over weeds of misunderstandings.
My dad once told me that a church is like a hospital. We’re all patients who are forced to gather under one roof because we are sick, and know we are sick. The Bible also describes the church as the body of Christ—we are elementally linked to one another into one body under one head, despite having disparate functions. It’s like having a second family: You can’t choose your family members, and you can’t avoid having to deal with each other. You’re forced to talk issues through, you argue and fight over trivial things, but in the end you’re still joined flesh and blood.
That’s why I say church groups are fascinating entities. We’re practically a freaking human psychology project: Individuals with vastly different personalities, talents, flaws, backgrounds and economic status, pinched together into a tight-knit community.
And it’s not like we talk about superficial things. No, we have to hold hands and sing praises together, share intimate details, confess our mistakes, learn to empathize with one another. You’ll meet the weirdest, most annoying individuals, and not only can you not avoid them, you have to struggle to love them. Which sane person would willingly put himself in that masochistic situation?
Yet for me, life without a consistent church fellowship feels awkward and unnatural. Even if I’m regularly attending Sunday service, if that’s all I’m doing, I feel like I’m a spare toe chopped off from the foot. Going back to my dad’s analogy of church = hospital, I feel my spiritual state deteriorating when I don’t draw communion from a healthy, sustainable church life. It’s inevitable: I absolutaely have to embrace the church, its warts and farts and all.
That’s why despite knowing that being part of a church means dealing with additional drama, the most important thing for me was to find a good church when I moved to Los Angeles for college.
And that’s not easy, because there is no such thing as a perfect church. I had to give up a lot of my own selfish expectations and prideful comparisons in order to finally settle into the church I’m in now. I’m so thankful that God helped me endure the little bumps, because now even though my biological family is 3,000 miles away, I’ve found a substitute family here in Los Angeles.
I attend a small Korean church in Koreatown. It took months for me to finally wiggle a comfortable spot in this church because I just couldn’t adjust to the overtly Korean culture at first. Fellow Asian Americans, you might understand what I’m talking about. It’s a typical struggle within many immigrant churches. But I’ve gradually settled in, and now I look forward to all my weekly church activities, even more so than a night out with my friends.
One of my church activities involves a co-ed group prayer meeting twice a month on Saturdays. We rotate hosting that meeting, and recently I hosted at my apartment studio.
Our intimate group consists of a few extreme foodies (you know, the kind of foodie who makes ramen noodles and pho broth from scratch) and all of us are heavy eaters. Depending on who’s present, we swing between a keto-friendly, meat-heavy meal or a carb-laden ramen feast. That particular Saturday, the anti-carb members weren’t present, while the two ramen-fetishing members were, so a ramen lunch it was.
If you’re a cognizant Angeleno, you might have noticed the steaming ramen craze in the city. Openings of specialized Japanese ramen shops headline local food blogs every week, it seems. I’ve mostly been ignoring the ramen trend because I’m not a ramen fan, so I probably wouldn’t have visited if not for my church friends.
The group, minus some camera-shy individuals.
We went to Shin-Sen-Gumi in Little Tokyo.
The owner, Mitsuyasu Shigeta, a one-time civil engineering student and Karate black-belt champion, worked part-time at a yakitori restaurant in Hakata after graduating university. Fast forward a few decades, and he’s now the owner and founder of 11 Shin-Sen-Gumi yakitori, ramen and shabu-shabu restaurants in Los Angeles and Tokyo, with more planned for New York, San Diego, Hawaii and Las Vegas.
Shin-Sen-Gumi specializes in the popular Hakata-style Japanese ramen, from the namesake city northwest of the Kyushu region in Japan. Hakata ramen is known mainly for its milky tonkotsu broth that is creamed out from hours of boiling pork bones. Its noodles are thin and straight, and its garnishes simple and humble. Shin-Sen-Gumi boasts that its broth is churned from 15 hours of simmering Berkshire pork in filtered water.
Angelenos greeted Shin-Sen-Gumi with choruses of approving slurps, so favorable that the restaurant now has 11 locations, though not all are ramen shops. The one we visited in Little Tokyo is a more recent opening. I really can’t imagine why anybody would crave steaming, rich ramen in the middle of a hot day, but Shin-Sen-Gumi was packed as usual when we arrived that Saturday afternoon.
Unlike some militant restaurants, Shin-Sen-Gumi is more customer-friendly in that it allows customer-chosen variations in their ramen. Once you find a seat, you’re given a sheet of paper in which you create your own ramen dish. You pick the toppings/garnishes you want, the level of richness of the broth, and even the hardness of your noodles (go for the hard, never the soft!). For the hungry diners, you can also order an extra helping of noodles after you finish your first portion, and presumably you can keep ordering more noodles until you run out of broth.
For our group, we chose egg, spicy miso, corn, karashi takana (pickled mustard greens), and pickled ginger for the toppings.
I find the egg disappointing…I’m more used to the gold-bleeding soft-boiled eggs served in Singapore ramen restaurants.
We also ordered the Takana fried rice, which was superb:
Lovely, oil and egg-coated rice.
In case you’re wondering, it’s different from Chinese fried rice.There’s less of a wok-fried taste, and the rice is stickier.
And the main star of the meal!
Each bowl comes with sprinkles of chopped scallions, a small spoonful of pickled ginger, and thin, velvety slices of pork laced with fat. The above bowl is tinted red from the spicy miso taste.
I love the utilitarian spoon—it has this little ledge to hook to the side of the bowl. There’s nothing more aggravating than a soup spoon that slides into your precious broth.
For non-ramen lovers like me, they also serve pork wonton soup:
The broth is still the same awesome cloudy, thick-as-cream tonkotsu broth, and it still comes with thin-sliced pork meat, pickled ginger and scallions.
It’s definitely not a light meal; even the broth, unctuous and heavy, sticks to the roof of your mouth and coats your throat and stomach with its porky richness. But it leaves your tummy feeling warm and toasty for hours later. You can feel the protein adding sprightliness to your muscles, the fat injecting fluidity to your joints, and the carbohydrates energizing your mind and heightening your senses.
Hey, kind of like church.